Over the years, plenty of Cuban artists have incorporated elements or Afro-Caribbean visual culture into their work, with varying degrees of authenticity. But few artists have engaged so deeply and critically with the mythology and spirituality of the island’s male-dominated Abakuá secret societies as master printmaker Belkis Ayón. Born in Havana in 1967, Ayón emerged as one of Cuba’s most revered artists in the 1990’s, storming the international scene with her visually striking and deceptively simple black-and-white prints.
In truth, the featureless faces and naive brushstrokes that characterizes her work amounted to a truly revolutionary reimagining of Catholic and Afro-Cuban iconography, deploying the Abakuá myth of Sikan – a tribal princess and bearer of sacred knowledge who was killed for divulging secrets to a rival nation – to lay bare the patriarchal underpinnings of Abakuá spirituality.
But beyond this complex religious dialogue, Ayón was also leveling a powerful criticism against the repressive Cuban state that had deeply failed its people following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. According to curator Cristina Vives, who organized Ayón first US solo exhibition at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, the young Afro-Cuban woman’s work “railed against marginality, frustration, fear, censorship, violence, and impotence.”
Unfortunately, Ayón was taken from the world well before her time, and in 1999, at the age of 32, she died from what was reported as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Yet, over the course of her tragically brief career, Ayón exhibited on the art world’s biggest stages and trained a new generation of Cuban artists at Havana’s Academia San Alejandro and Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).
Her powerful body of work will be on display at the Fowler Museum through February 12.